The problem with rowing books — forget for a moment that hardly anyone cares about rowing — is that they are so much alike. It’s almost impossible to avoid Mystical Rowing Mumbo Jumbo: the triumph of the human spirit; the ego sublimated to the common goal; and the ineffable je ne sais quoi of moving oars through water. “[T]he lonely condition upon the river was a true condition,” Mark Helprin wrote in his 1981 short story, “Palais de Justice.” In that story an impromptu sculling race on the Charles becomes — of course — a metaphor for life.
Once the rowing scribes dip their pens in the hallowed reservoir of Mumbo Jumbo, the purple prose flows nonstop. The eight oarsmen and a coxswain in a college crew “somehow became one thing,” Daniel James Brown writes in “The Boys in the Boat.” He continues: “[A] thing that was so in tune with the water and the earth and the sky above that . . . It was a rare thing, a sacred thing, a thing devoutly to be hoped for.”
THE BOYS IN THE BOAT: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
I adore rowing. I’ve sculled on the Charles for a decade, and I appreciate some of the sport’s pleasures don’t translate easily onto the page. If only rowing books would raise the stroke rate, as it were. If you imagined a great regatta of books about rowing, then Brown’s “Boys in the Boat” certainly makes the final heat. It is a certifiable Big Book: wildly overlong, occasionally maudlin, loaded to the gunnels with obscure lore, and pre-sold to Miramax as a movie with Kenneth Branagh slated to direct.
To be fair, “Boys” tells the affecting story of the University of Washington crew that rows off of Lake Washington to Berlin’s spanking new Langer See stadium IN SEARCH OF OLYMPIC GOLD.
One of my favorite moments in Brown’s book occurs upriver from the 1936 national championships in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. On a free Saturday evening, the Husky crew borrows a motor launch and steers north to Hyde Park. The nine boys knock at the door of Springwood, Franklin Roosevelt’s three-story, Greekified mansion — and they get in! The president was away, but FDR Jr., who rowed for the Harvard junior varsity, ushered the boys into dad’s library, where the men jabbered endlessly about rowing. The open-hearted aristocrat entertains the “farm boys, fishermen, and loggers,” as Brown calls them, in the people-friendly White House-on-the-Hudson. Was America a great country, or what?
“Boys” is competing with another just-published rowing book, Ron Irwin’s novel, “Flat Water Tuesday.” I liked “Tuesday,” a lot. It is much better written than it needs to be and is refreshingly free of Mumbo Jumbo. If only it could toss the stroke ratings, bench pulls, and ergometers (rowing machines) overboard, we would be left with a deft, intimate story about five young people in a bucolic private school on the Housatonic. It’s “A Separate Peace,” with erging.
So what about that book regatta? One of my favorites is coach Daniel Topolski’s “True Blue: The Oxford Boat Race Mutiny” (Doubleday Canada, 1989), WHICH RECOUNTS THE ACRIMONY THAT ROILED HIS TEAM AS IT SOUGHT TO AVENGE ITSELF AGAINST CAMBRIDGE IN THE 1987 BOAT RACE. As in David Fincher’s movie, “The Social Network,” the American rowers are the bad guys. “True Blue” — also made into a movie — features mid-river fisticuffs, with oarsmen punching each other after colliding on the freezing Thames. Try that in a 2-foot-wide racing shell sometime.
In our hypothetical race, it would be impossible not to mention “The Red Rose Crew: A True Story of Women, Winning and the Water,” (Hyperion, 2000) Daniel J. Boyne’s crisp, chipper account of the awkward birth of women’s rowing. “Red Rose” is very much a Boston book, as Harvard coach Harry Parker agreed to select a women’s boat for a first-ever trip to the world championships, training them out of Harvard’s Newell Boathouse. (Boyne, author of the excellent, how-to book “Essential Sculling,” is the director of recreational rowing at Harvard.)
Who finishes first in this literary regatta? I’d have to say the late David Halberstam, with his 1985 masterpiece “The Amateurs” (Morrow, 1985). The book showcases everything that was wrong about Halberstam. The story is a complete mare’s nest, attempting to follow four separate scullers seeking medals in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. (Inconveniently for Halberstam, only one of them lands a medal, but in a double shell, not in a scull.) Tiff Wood, the book’s most engaging character, doesn’t even race in Los Angeles.
And yet. For writing passion, no one matches Halberstam. An amateur rower himself, he brings it on every page. He’s like the fierce competitor Wood: angry, driven, obsessed by the task of writing, and good at it. I’ve never forgotten my favorite line from this book, when a colleague explains to Wood that his intensity is working against him: “You’re killing fish, not rowing.” But Halberstam’s intensity so often worked for him. He loved the sport; he loved the rowers; he loved the writing. It’s so sad that he’s no longer in the boat.
FLAT WATER TUESDAY
By Ron Irwin
St. Martin’s, 355 pp., $24.99
Alex Beam’s book about the death of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, “American Crucifixion,” will be published next year.